500+ Beautiful Manuscripts from the Islamic World Now Digitized & Free to Download

Mathematics, astronomy, history, law, literature, architecture: in these fields and others, the Muslim world came up with major innovations before any other civilization did. This Islamic cultural and intellectual flowering lasted from the 11th through the 19th century, and many of the texts the period left as its legacy have gone mostly unresearched. So say the creators of Manuscripts of the Muslim World, a project of Columbia University, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, and Haverford College aimed at creating an online archive of "more than 500 manuscripts and 827 paintings from the Islamicate world broadly construed."

As UPenn Libraries Senior Curator of Special Collections Mitch Fraas tells Hyperallergic's Sarah Rose Sharp, “The aim of this project was to find and digitize all the Islamicate manuscripts in Philadelphia collections and along the way we partnered with Columbia on a grant to take a multi-city approach."

To the sources of its manuscripts it also takes a multi-culture approach, including "texts related to Christianity (Coptic and Syriac mss. galore), Hinduism (epics translated into Persian in Mughal India), science, technology, music, etc. but which were produced in the historic Muslim world." There are also texts, he adds, "in Persian, Arabic, and Turkish of course but also in Coptic, Tamazight, Avestan, etc."

If you can read those languages, Manuscripts of the Muslim World obviously amounts to a gold mine. (You may also find something of interest in the digital archives of 700 years of Persian manuscripts and 10,000 books in Arabic we've previously featured here on Open Culture.) But even if you don't, you'll find in the collection marvels of book design that will appeal to anyone with an appreciation of the lush aesthetics, both abstract and figurative, of these places and these times. Some of them aren't even as old as they may seem: take the manuscript at the top of the post, "overpainted in the 20th century to mimic Mughal style." Or the one below that, whose colophon "says the copy was completed in 1121 A.H. (1709 or 1710 CE)," which "does not make sense given the author likely lived in the 19th century."

The other pages here come from a set of "illustrations from Qurʼānic stories" (this one depicting "Abraham sacrificing his son") and a "Persian calligraphy and illustration album." You'll find much more in Manuscripts of the Muslim World, hosted on OPENN, the University of Pennsylvania's online repository of "high-resolution archival images of manuscripts" accompanied by "machine-readable TEI P5 descriptions and technical metadata," all released into the public domain or under Creative Commons licenses. Though each manuscript's entry comes with basic notes, the collection is, in the main, not yet a thoroughly studied one. If you have an interest in the Islamic world at its peak of cultural and intellectual influence so far, you may just find your next big research subject here — or at the very least, material for a few hours' admiration. Enter the collection.

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Bertrand Russell Remembers His Face-to-Face Encounter with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

When the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia in the October Revolution of 1917, Bertrand Russell saw it as "one of the great heroic events of the world's history."

A renowned philosopher and mathematician, Russell was also a committed socialist. As he would write in his 1920 book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism:

By far the most important aspect of the Russian Revolution is as an attempt to realize Communism. I believe that Communism is necessary to the world, and I believe that the heroism of Russia has fired men's hopes in a way which was essential to the realization of Communism in the future. Regarded as a splendid attempt, without which ultimate success would have been very improbable, Bolshevism deserves the gratitude and admiration of all the progressive part of mankind.

But despite his early admiration for the "splendid attempt," Russell found much in Soviet Russia to be concerned about. Specifically, he was appalled by the rigidly doctrinaire mindset of the Bolsheviks -- their zeal for quoting Marx like it was Holy gospel -- and the cruel tyranny they were willing to impose.

In May of 1920, a few months before finishing The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, Russell visited Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) and Moscow with a British Labour delegation. As he says in the book:

I went to Russia a Communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not as to Communism in itself, but as to the wisdom of holding a creed so firmly that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.

As Russell would later write in the second volume of his autobiography, his time in Soviet Russia was one of "continually increasing nightmare:"

Cruelty, poverty, suspicion, persecution, formed the very air we breathed. Our conversations were continually spied upon. In the middle of the night one would hear shots, and know that idealists were being killed in prison. There was a hypocritical pretence of equality, and everybody was called 'tovarisch' [comrade], but it was amazing how differently this word could be pronounced according as the person who was addressed was Lenin or a lazy servant.

Soon after arriving in Moscow, Russell had a one-hour talk with Soviet leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin at his spartan office in the Kremlin. "Lenin's room is very bare," writes Russell in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism; "it contains a big desk, some maps on the walls, two book-cases, and one comfortable chair for visitors in addition to two or three hard chairs. It is obvious that he has no love of luxury or even comfort."

In the audio clip above, taken from a 1961 interview by John Chandos at Russell's home in north Wales, the old philosopher relates a pair of observations of what he saw as Lenin's two defining traits: his rigid orthodoxy, and what Russell would later call his "distinct vein of impish cruelty."

By the time of the interview, Russell's early ambivalence toward Soviet communism had hardened into antipathy. "Marx's doctrine was bad enough, but the developments which it underwent under Lenin and Stalin made it much worse," he writes in his 1956 essay "Why I am Not a Communist." "I am completely at a loss to understand how it came about that some people who are both humane and intelligent could find something to admire in the vast slave camp produced by Stalin."

Lenin died on January 21, 1924 -- less than four years after his meeting with Russell. A few days later, Russell published an essay, "Lenin: An Impression," in The New Leader. And although Russell once again mentions the man's narrow orthodoxy and ruthlessness, he paints a rather glowing picture of Lenin as a historical figure:

The death of Lenin makes the world poorer by the loss of one of the really great men produced by the war [World War I]. It seems probable that our age will go down to history as that of Lenin and Einstein -- the two men who have succeeded in a great work of synthesis in an analytic age, one in thought, the other in action. Lenin appeared to the outraged bourgeoisie of the world as a destroyer, but it was not the work of destruction that made him pre-eminent. Others could have destroyed, but I doubt whether any other living man could have built so well on the new foundations. His mind was orderly and creative: he was a philosophic system-maker in the sphere of practice.... Statesmen of his caliber do not appear in the world more than about once in a century, and few of us are likely to live to see his equal.

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When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider: The Rise and Fall of BowieNet (1998)

When we consider the many identities of David Bowie — Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke — we often neglect to include his transformation into an internet entrepreneur. In line with Bowie's reputation for being ahead of his time in all endeavors, it happened several tech booms ago, in the late 1990s. Foreseeing the internet's potential as a cultural and commercial force, he got ahead of it by launching not just his own web site (which some major artists lacked through the end of the century), but his own internet service provider. For $19.95 a month (£10.00 in the UK), BowieNet offered fans access not just to "high-speed" internet but to "David Bowie, his world, his friends, his fans, including live chats, live video feeds, chat rooms and bulletin boards."

So announced the initial BowieNet press release published in August 1998, which also promised "live in-studio video feeds," "text, audio and video messages from Bowie," "Desktop themes including Bowie screensavers, wallpaper and icons," and best of all, a "davidbowie e-mail address (your name@davidbowie.com)." While the dial-up of the internet connections of the day wasn't quite equal to the task of reliably streaming video, many of BowieNet's approximately 100,000 members still fondly remember the community cultivated on its message boards. "This was in effect a music-centric social network," writes The Gardian's Keith Stuart, "several years before the emergence of sector leaders like Friendster and Myspace."

Unlike on the the vast social networks that would later develop, the man himself was known to drop in. Under the alias "Sailor," writes Newsweek's Zach Schonfeld, "Bowie would sometimes share updates and recommendations or respond to fan queries." He might endorse an album (Arcade Fire's debut Funeral earned a rave), express incredulity at rumors (of, say, his playing a concert with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson to be beamed into outer space), crack jokes, or tell stories (of, say, the time he and John Lennon sat around calling into radio stations together). As Ars Technica's interview with BowieNet co-founder Ron Roy confirms, Bowie didn't just lend the enterprise his brand but was "tremendously involved from day one." As Roy tells it, Bowie kept BowieNet fresh "by exploring new technologies to keep fans engaged and excited. He always preached [that] it's about the experience, the new."

It helped that Bowie wasn't simply looking to capitalize on the rise of the internet. As the 1999 ZDTV interview at the top of the post reveals, he was already hooked on it himself. "The first thing I do is get e-mails out of the way," he says, describing the average day in his online life. "I'm e-mail crazy. And then I'll spend probably about an hour, maybe more, going through my site." Even in the early days of "the controversial mp3 format," he showed great enthusiasm for putting his music online. He continued doing so even after technology surpassed BowieNet, which discontinued its internet service in 2006. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic keeps much of the world at home, many high-profile artists have taken to the internet to keep the show going. David Bowie fans know that, were he still with us, he'd have been the first to do it — and do it, no doubt, the most interestingly.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When IBM Created a Typewriter to Record Dance Movements (1973)

Increasingly many of us in the 21st century have never used a typewriter — indeed, have never seen one in real life. But despite being deep into its obsolescence, the machine has a long cultural half-life. Seeing typewriters in classic and period films, for example, keeps an idea of their look and feel in our minds. Naturally it gets entangled with the romance of the writer, or rather the Writer, whom we imagine pounding away on a culturally iconic model: an Underwood, an Olvetti. "If Olivettis could talk, you'd get the novelist naked," writes Philip Roth in The Anatomy Lesson. From the then-new electric IBM typewriters, however, you'd hear "only the smug, puritanical workmanlike hum telling of itself and all its virtues: I am a Correcting Selectric II. I never do anything wrong."

Yet we underestimate the influence of the IBM Selectric, on not just writing but late-20th-century American life in general, at our peril. Introduced in 1961, this technologically revolutionary typewriter replaced the old "typebars" — those thin metal arms that whack a letter onto the page with each keystroke — with a "typeball," a "compact unit containing all the letters and symbols of a keyboard, rotated and pivoted to the correct position before striking."

So writes IBM's Justine Jablonska in an essay on the versatility of the typeball, which could be swapped out and modified according to the needs of the user. In 1973, IBM could say even to those users who needed to type out not words, sentences, and paragraphs but dances that, yes, there's a typeball for that.

Developed in collaboration with New York City’s Dance Notation Bureau, this unusual typeball "had special Labanotation symbols, developed in the 1920s by Hungarian dancer/choreographer Rudolf Laban to analyze and record movement and dance." Each symbol's location "showed which part of the body — arm, leg, torso — was to be used. The symbol’s shape indicated direction. The symbol’s shading showed the level of an arm or leg. And its length controlled the time value of a movement." In total, writes Karen Hill at Zippy Facts, Labanotation had "88 different symbols, which could be arranged to form a complete vocabulary for recording movement of any kind, from ballet and modern to ethnic, even folk." Beyond dance, the system could also record "movements in areas like sports, behavioral sciences, physical therapy, and even industrial operations."

This particular typeball showcased the Selectric's versatility, but some had higher hopes. In a 1975 paper, dance scholar Drid Williams compares its potential impact to that of "Gutenberg's invention several centuries ago," signaling that "the graphic linguistic sign can now be joined by its obvious counterpart, the printed human action sign." But she also expresses regret that "'the ball' is being looked on by many as a mere practical aid to recording human movement and it is being associated with specialist fields like dance. As usual, concern with the syntagmata obscures the real issues of the paradigms." Indeed. A more practical-minded assessment comes from Charles Ditchendorf, employed at the time at IBM’s Office Products Division. "To the best of my knowledge," Jablonska quotes him as saying, I didn’t sell one." But then, when has dance ever been enslaved to the market?

via Ted Gioia on Twitter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

New Hilma af Klint Documentary Explores the Life & Art of the Trailblazing Abstract Artist

It's not often an entire chapter of art history textbooks needs rewriting, but as fans of Hilma af Klint see it, one such time has come. A Swedish artist and mystic who lived from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, af Klint left behind a body of work amounting to more than 1,200 paintings — all of which she insisted not be taken out of storage until 20 years after her death. She suspected the public wouldn't be ready for them before then, and she was more right than she knew: offered the paintings as a donation in the 1970s, Stockholm's Moderna Museet turned them down. Only in the following decade did the art history world begin to understand that, far from just a productive amateur painting in obscurity, af Kint might be the very first abstract artist.

Today af Klint's abstract paintings, the first of which she produced in middle-age in 1906, have appreciators all over the world. Some, we'd like to think, came because of all the times we've previously featured her here on Open Culture; others were brought in by the Guggenheim's recent retrospective Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.

These paintings, says the museum's web site, "were like little that had been seen before: bold, colorful, and untethered from any recognizable references to the physical world. It was years before Vasily KandinskyKazimir MalevichPiet Mondrian, and others would take similar strides to rid their own artwork of representational content." This year the story of af Klint and her work is told cinematically in Beyond the Visible, a new documentary by German filmmaker Halina Dyrschka whose trailer appears at the top of the post.

In his review of the filmNew York Times critic A.O. Scott briefly recounts af Klint's early years: "Born in 1862 to an aristocratic Swedish family and raised partly on the grounds of the military academy where her father was an instructor, she trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, mastering the traditional genres of portrait, still life and landscape. By the late 1880s, her notebooks and paintings began incorporating forms that, while they sometimes evoked natural phenomena (like snail shells, flower petals and insect wings), did not resemble anything in the visible world." This change in the artist's aesthetic sensibility came along with her growing interest in mysticism and ways of accessing a realm beyond human senses. (She even offered a painting to the Anthroposophical Society founder Rudolf Steiner, who rejected it.)

Scott calls Beyond the Visible "a chapter in the wholesale revision of the critical and historical record that began only recently, and it enlists a passionate and knowledgeable cadre of curators, scholars, scientists and artists to press the argument for af Klint’s importance." But "the paintings themselves are the best evidence — even through the mediation of a home screen, their vibrancy, wit and formal command is thrilling." With many movie theaters temporarily shut down by the coronavirus epidemic, you can watch the documentary through Kino Marquee's "virtual cinema," a service that streams over the internet but also supports local art houses. Most of us may be no closer to the unseen world into which af Klint yearned to tap than were any of her everyday compatriots. But as far as historical moments in which her work and life can find a fascinated audience, there's never been a better one.

via Colossal

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Experience New York City’s Fabled Mid-Century Nightclubs in an Interactive, COVID-19-Era, Student-Designed Exhibit

It’s been over a month since public health precautions led almost every school in the United States to switch to online instruction.

While there are obviously much greater tragedies unfolding daily, it’s hard not to empathize with students who have watched countless special events—proms, commencements, spring sports, performances, hotly anticipated rites of passage—go poof.

In New York City, students in Parsons School of Design’s Narrative Spaces: Design Tools for Spatial Storytelling course were crestfallen to learn that their upcoming open-to-the-public exhibition of group and solo projects in the West Village—the centerpiece of the class and a huge opportunity to connect with an audience outside of the classroom—was suddenly off the menu.

Multidisciplinary artist Jeff Stark, who co-teaches the class with Pamela Parker, was disappointed on their behalves.

Stark’s own work, from Empire Drive In to Miss Rockaway Armada, is rooted in live experience, and New York City holds a special place in his heart. (He also edits the weekly email list Nonsense NYC, an invaluable resource for independent art and Do-It-Yourself events in the city.)

This year’s class projects stemmed from visits to the City Reliquary, a small museum and civic organization celebrating everyday New York City artifacts. Students were able to get up close and personal with Chris Engel’s collection of photographs, menus, promotional materials, and souvenirs documenting the heyday of New York’s supper club nightlife, from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Student Rylie Cooke, an Australian who aspires to launch a design company, found that her research deepened her connection to artifacts she encountered at the Reliquary, as she came to appreciate the fabled Copacabana’s influence on the popular culture, food, and music of the period:

... with COVID-19 it became important to have this connection to the artifacts as I wasn't able to physically touch or look at them when Parsons moved to online for the semester. I am a very hands-on creative and I love curating things, especially in an exhibit format.

Rather than scrap their goal of public exhibition, the class decided to take things into the virtual realm, hustling to adapt their original concepts to a purely screen-based experience, The New York Supper Club: From Nightlife to Social Distancing.

The plan to wow visitors with a period-appropriate table in the center of their West Village exhibition space became a grid of digital placemats that serve as portals to each project.

Cooke’s contribution, A Seat at the Copacabana, begins with an interview in which baseball great Mickey Mantle recounts getting into a cloakroom brawl as he and fellow New York Yankees celebrated a birthday with a Sammy Davis Jr. set. Recipes for steak and potatoes, Chicken a la King, rarebit, and arroz con pollo provide flavor for a floorshow represented by archival footage of “Let’s Do the Copacabana” starring Carmen Miranda, a Martin and Lewis appearance, and a dance rehearsal from 1945. The tour ends at the Copa’s current incarnation in Times Square, with a vision of pre-socially distanced contemporary merrymakers salsa-ing the night away.

(Navigate this exhibit using toolbar arrows at the bottom of the screen.)

Student Hongxi Chen’s investigations into The China Doll nightclub resulted in an elaborate interactive immersive experience on the topic of cultural appropriation:

The China Doll… was founded in 1946 by Caucasian stage producer Tom Ball, who deemed it the only “all-oriental” night club in New York. While the club sometimes played off “Oriental” stereotypes, and titled one of its shows “Slant-Eyed Scandals,” they featured Asian dancers and Asian singers presenting popular songs in a way New Yorkers had never seen before. The Dim interactive experience unfolds with the story of Thomas, a waiter at the China Doll.

As a junior in Parsons’ Design and Technology program, Chen had plenty of previous experience forging virtual environments, but working with a museum collection was new to him, as was collaborating on a virtual platform.

He sought Stark’s advice on creating vivid dialogue for his fictional waiter.

Jiaqi Liuan, a Design and Technology MFA student and veteran of the Shanghai production of Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s immersive retelling of MacBeth, helped choreograph Chen’s China Doll dancers in an homage to The Flower Drum Song's Fan Tan Fannie number.

Chen stayed up until 7 am for two weeks, devouring open source tutorials in an attempt to wrangle and debug the many elements of his ambitious project—audio, video, character models and animation, software, game engines, and game server platform.

As Chen noted at the exhibition’s recent Zoom opening (an event that was followed by a digital dance party), the massive game can be a bit slow to load. Don't worry, it’s worth the wait, especially as you will have a hand in the story, steering it to one of five different endings.

Chen, an international student, could not safely return to China and has not left his student apartment since mid-March, but gamely states that remaining in the same time zone as his school allowed him to communicate efficiently with his professors and the majority of his classmates. (Cooke is back home in Australia.)

Adds Chen:

Even though we are facing a difficult circumstance under the pandemic and had to pivot our original ideas into a virtual presentation, I’m glad that our class was able to quickly change plans and adapt to the situation. This… actually inspired me a lot and opened up ways to invite and connect people with virtual artwork.

Other highlights of The New York Supper Club: From Nightlife to Social Distancing include Ming Hong Xian’s exploration of the famous West Village country music club, The Village Barn (complete with turtle races) and What Are You? a personality test devised by Mi Ri Kim and Eleanor Melby, to help visitors determine which classic NYC supper club best suits their personality.

(Apparently, I’m headed to Cafe Zanzibar, below, where the drinks are cheap, the aspirin is free, and Cab Calloway is a frequent headliner.)

Stark admits that initially, his students may not have shared his swooning response to the source material, but they share his love of New York City and the desire to “get in the thick of it.” By bringing a Generation Z perspective to this historical ephemera, they stake a claim, making work that could help the City Reliquary connect to a new audience.

Enter The New York Supper Club: From Nightlife to Social Distancing here.

Explore the City Reliquary online here, and join in the civic pride by participating in its weekly Instagram Live events, including Thursday Collectors’ Nights.

(All images used with permission of the artists and The City Reliquary)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her contribution to art in isolation is a hastily assembled tribute to the classic 60s social line dance, The Madison. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Museum Curators Create a Contest to See Who Has the Creepiest Object: Ancient Body Parts, Cursed Toys, and More

Museums around the world have temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and each of these institutions has used its downtime differently. Some have provided online versions of the experiences previously offered in their physical galleries; others have started prolonged battles on Twitter. No, not the kind of prolonged battle one normally associates with Twitter, but a friendlier, more productive competition between professionals. At times, however, the #curatorbattle, as it's been hashtagged, has looked just as repulsive to the viewer as any Twitter conflict: especially last week, when the Yorkshire Museum threw down the challenge to pull the "creepiest object" out of the archives and post it.

"Museum curators are up to their ears in weird crap, some of which isn’t fit for display," writes Ruin My Week's Alison Sullivan. "There are lots of niche museums out there, too, who don’t get the kind of attention the Smithsonian receives. They’re about local history or specific interests, and their collections are the strangest of all."

The Yorkshire Museum, which bills itself as offering "Britain’s finest archaeological treasures, and a walk through the Jurassic landscapes of Yorkshire," is no different: they started off the challenge of the week by posting a "3rd/4th century hair bun from the burial of a #Roman lady, still with the jet pins in place" — albeit fully detached from the head it was buried on.

Other participating institutions saw the Yorkshire Museum's hair bun and raised it a "sheep’s heart stuck with pins and nails, to be worn like a necklace for breaking evil spells," a P.T. Barnum-style "mermaid" constructed through taxidermy, a "CURSED CHILDREN’S TOY that we found inside the walls of a 155-year-old mansion," and small dioramas populated by gold-miners and card-players made of crab's legs and claws.

In the tweet posting that last, the York Castle Museum describes the pieces' creators as typical of Victorians, who "loved weird/creepy stuff." If your own such love isn't satisfied by the highlights at Ruin My Week and The Guardian, have a look at the replies below the  Yorkshire Museum's original tweet. You may not have asked to see a beaked 17th- or 18th-century plague mask at this particular moment, but try to take it in the spirit of cultural exchange. View more creepy objects on Twitter here.

via Artnet

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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